I generally don't like alternate histories because they're typically just some version of a dystopia. What if the Soviets, or Nazis, or the Confederacy won the war? What if the bad guys prevailed? It's a common trope. What's rare is someone writing an alternate history were things are better
. So when I heard the premise for Sarah Gailey's River of Teeth
I couldn't wait. What if one amazing and ridiculous thing that could have happened, did?
The old yarn says that writers of the Alien film got it made by pitching it as simply, "Jaws in space." That kind of short Elevator Pitch is one of those things I hate crafting. Condensing something I've made down to a few words trivializes the work, and more often than not misrepresents it. (Alien isn't really Jaws in space.) On the other hand, Alien got made and has become its own landmark film, being used in new three word pitches. (Alien at sea!) It's the kind of thing that every commercial writer wants to create, a simple idea that sticks in the mind and inspires a whole generation of new stuff.
A few years ago, Author Sarah Gailey learned of an interesting fork in American history. In the first decade of the 1900's, America had a problem. It's population had been growing dramatically, and it had been feeding this growing population by pushing deeper into the frontier, turning it into cattle land. But they ran out of frontier, and the population was still growing. America didn't have enough meat for all these people. With most grazing land already being ranched, people started looking into animals that might not need prairies. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, they had a different problem: invasive water hyacinth was essentially murdering the swamps. A solution to both problems was offered: hippopotamus love water hyacinth, and are full of meat. Import them from Africa, let them graze on invasive species in our otherwise undeveloped swamps, and then eat them. Everyone wins. (Except the hippos.)
This was a real proposal, thoroughly researched at the time, and the full story
of it is amazing. (There's as podcast version too
.) (Wired has a much shorter summary
. Still amazing.) Americans never did farm hippos (obviously). Industrialized farming took hold instead, and the country was fed.
So we go back to Gailey's simple idea, her alternate history, her "Jaws in Space" pitch. "What if America had hippo ranches?" It's ridiculous and audacious and fun idea, and I'm a little jealous I didn't think of it first. What new adventures would happen in an America that had taken that fork in the road?
Her answer is River of Teeth
, and it's a lot of fun. She moved the timeline back a few decades (and generally updated cultural mores) taking what would be an old west adventure and moving it into the Louisiana bayou where would-be cowboys roam the waterways on the backs of loyal hippos and the Mississippi has been dammed to create even more grazing ground for the new livestock. The book knows how ridiculous it is. The language is slyly fancy, winking at the reader with its hat askance. But the characters, relationships, and settings are grounded. It's a tale of revenge, of scoundrels coming together to pull off a heist (or maybe just betray each other), and of the wonderful time in American history where hippo ranching came to pass.
Sarah Gailey's River of Teeth
is the first short novel in a two book series, and is out this week. The second will be out in September.